Opening up the Cabin

I thought I would have time enough to eat and sleep at the cabin, so I didn’t have any breakfast before I went out to pack up the car. That may have been a mistake, for I noticed my front tire was slack so I fished out my hand pump from the trunk. As I was taking off the dustcap, I saw that the hard thump from the night before had bent my rim. I had more to do than just pump up a slack tire. It was leaking because the rim was bent. I fetched Dennis’ framing hammer from the barn, and hammered the rim back into a kind of shape, and then pumped it up. It seems to be the only rim to have been damaged, but I knew I would have to remove it and hammer the other side in as well. In the long term, the rim is likely ruined, but I was more interested in getting to the cabin before the bright sunny day disappeared.

Once I checked the tires, I slowly drove the torn up road to the dirt road that led into the bush. It was in bad shape, for the frost had been heaving the dirt, and people had rutted it by driving their trucks too fast over the soft dirt. I drove slowly along, thinking all the time about coming out of the bush on the Wednesday, for Ann needs me to help her with a task in her home. Her former tenants had destroyed the place, and we are going to remove carpeting on Wednesday. It’s difficult to come out of the bush early, but I told her I would aim for be there for noon.

Once I found my driveway, the two stumps were where I’d left them blocking the drive, so I parked on the road, rolled them out of the way, and then went for a shovel to get the last pile of snow which was right over my entrance. That would be the remainder from the snow plow, and it should have been a quick matter to remove it.

I keep a shovel, as well as other junk, in what I call the pallet shed near the road, so I unlocked the door only to discover that the building had heaved and the door could not be forced open any more than a few inches. I set the task aside to come back to after shoveling, and reached in one hand to grab the shovel which I luckily keep right by the door. I removed the snow, picked up the small branches which had fallen in the drive, and brought my car closer to the pallet shed where I normally park. I like for the car to be in far enough to keep it invisible to curious eyes.

Then I turned my mind to the door. I used the shovel as a lever, and after a few minutes, I was able to force the door open the rest of the way. Then I took out the hydraulic jack and lifted one of the supports, and then another, until the door was freely swinging. I put a higher support under it, and although the tolerances were close, I could at least lock the door again. I brought out the pallet step for the shed while I was in there, and pulled out the tarp I had taken to parking on to avoid rusting my car. I had parked too far forward to allow placing it, but I threw it near where I wanted it, and figured while the car was warming up, I could place it properly.

I was getting weak from little food the day before, and none so far, but I next contemplated the creek. It wasn’t really high, but I would certainly get wet feet crossing. I took out two pairs of boots and wore one across, while burdened with my pack and shoulder bag. I had removed my pants and socks so that I would have dry clothes for the trek back into the bush, so I dressed again, and put the wet boots upside down to dry while I wore the other pair into the woods.

The trail took a bit of kicking fallen branches out of the way, but it was warm when I stepped into the glade where the cabin looked like it had survived the winter well. The only sign that the snows had been unusually heavy was the woodshed, which had been shoved away from the cabin by the snow coming off the roof. I unlocked the porch door, and although it had moved in its frame, or more properly, its frame had moved around it, I opened it and stepped into the heat of the porch. My key to the main door wouldn’t turn in the lock, so I set down my bag and devoted some attention to it.

The cabin usually shifts on its foundation in the winter and spring, and by times the door is hard to open, but this time it seemed quite stuck. Feeling that I hadn’t eaten or even taken a glass of water, I tried turning the key with a pair of pliers I leave in the porch for that reason, but to no avail. Then I took apart the top hinge and shifted the door by prying on it and lifting it, and then finally, once I turned the key and heaved on it at the same time, it moved.

Once I was inside, I opened the two windows to the porch, for the main cabin was chilly. Then I brought my bags inside, and turned on the main power. I checked the buckets I left in the new part and there were the remains of four mice in them, so I realized that I would be fighting mice again this year. A bucket in the greenhouse had a dead mouse as well, so I added that to my list of things to look into. I plugged in the drill I had modified to run off the twelve volt current in the cabin, and took off the plywood covering the sliding door in the new part, and then went around the cabin unscrewing and opening the shutters. In a few minutes the cabin felt like I had arrived.

A pin cherry tree was down in the yard where it had fallen in the winter, so I opened the workshop for my axe, and moved it out of the way. I fished out the barrel for water, and set it up on its base, and then covered it with screen and hooked up its hoses. Next I set up the step on the tin shed, where I keep building supplies, and the step for the workshop. They merely screw into place, and before long I was bringing out the tin box for the rootcellar—noting the snow behind the cabin I can use to keep it cool—and leaning the ladder against the front of the porch. I set up the steps for the greenhouse, and then took out the parts of the water supply. I took the dirty buckets with mouse remains to a place where spring water collects down the hill, and washed them out so I could install them again in the buildings to collect stubborn mice. I found a dead mouse in the workshop as well, so I will have to look into how the building shifted and allowed it in.

I knew I couldn’t set up the power system yet, and in fact, I was moving slow from the heat and lack of food, so I set up the rest of the water system. That is a half barrel on the greenhouse roof, one on the front of the porch, and the fresh water barrel on the roof with its overflow going into the hot water tank and then hooked that into the inside and shower water system.

I finally took the time to eat, so I made a peanut butter and artichoke and green olive sandwich, and then took it out into the sun. I set up a lawn chair on the grass and ate while I toasted slightly in the bright sun. It was very warm, which made me think—after I finished a few more tasks—that I should use the Fresnel lens to toast my cheese sandwich. I sat in the sun getting more drowsy, but finally I roused myself enough to shovel snow around the icebox or root cellar, and then pad that with feedbags.

I made another trip to the car to bring back my sleeping bags, since I don’t want mice to chew them, and then I set up the frame for the solar panels on the roof. After that, I roasted my vegetarian cheese sandwich with the Fresnel lens. That was a fairly successful experiment, although I set everything up and then realized that I couldn’t remember how to take video with my camera, so there are no photos of the procedure. Next time.

I took a nap after eating, and while I was waiting for the sun to descend enough to make setting up the solar panel system easier—for it is more difficult to keep covering the panels in order not so send too strong a shock through the system.

Once the sun began to slide down in the sky, I unplugged the batteries, and began the lengthy procedure of carrying solar panels to the roof to supplement the two I leave out over the winter. I clipped their connectors together, and before long they were sending the weak charge of twilight to the batteries.

By the time it was almost dark, I was beginning to think about sleeping again. I plugged the obvious hole the mice had made in the wall of the new part, and contemplated waiting until they were running around so I could see if there were new holes. In the end, I just washed up and went to sleep. It had been a brilliant day in the sun, and I had nearly everything in the cabin set up, and so after listening to a podcast, I was soon asleep. I woke a few times in the night due to the cold, but I had overheated the cabin by the sun all day, so it wasn’t too chilly until late morning.

Posted in Writing | Comments Off on Opening up the Cabin

The Long Road Home: The Second Day

I slept until eight in the morning, off and on, and as soon as I woke up, I started the car, let it warm up while I wiped the condensation from the window and turned on the wipers to brush away the partially frozen rain from the windshield. One of the radio stations I had found along the way claimed the temperatures would plummet to minus five in the night, and by the feel of the morning air rushing past where I had blocked the heater motor hole with material the night before, it was cold.

I wore three sweaters and wrapped my two blankets around my knees, and before long I was approaching Sault St Marie and the windows were starting to clear on their own due to the occasional sun peering from behind banks of clouds and fog. I stopped at another Husky outside the city, at almost seven hundred kilometres, and filled up while I took off a sweater. I was warm enough to snack a bit too, but I was concerned about arriving in Deep River late, so I pressed on through the warming day until I was almost hot in the car with the windows up.

Before I pulled into Deep River the GPS which I had inherited because it was too broken for my friends, finally died. I tried to revive it while I was waiting for a construction zone, but it was gone. I put it away, and instead of receiving a report on how fast I was going (for my car’s speedometer is not quite accurate and I have been going slower than I need) or how long to Noreen’s place, I resigned myself to waiting until I got there.

I packed up my bag for the trudge into Noreen’s apartment with relief, and as she had the year she had prepared chilli and bought a raspberry pie. I put the bread I hadn’t touched in the fridge, and mixed the chilli with coconut rice I had been eating plain while driving.

Noreen and I spent a pleasant evening catching up and before long it was midnight and I sent a few emails to say I had arrived, and checked the highway into Ottawa.

The following day I drove a few hours into Ottawa, and before long I was with the family again. The children had grown, especially the little one, and they were all more accustomed to me this time around. We spent time in the yard in the sun, and while the kids ran riot around us, Taisa and Luke and I caught up on the latest in our respective lives.

The following day I was woken early by the kids coming to see if I was awake, and the youngest declared as she came to wake me up that when the sun is up everyone should be awake and that no one should be sleeping while the sun is above the horizon. I spent more time with the family than I should have, for I had forgotten the problem with the heater. I was on my way to New Brunswick at three in the afternoon finally, and stopped only just before Quebec City for gas. That proved to barely suffice, for my gas was growing low despite that extra twenty dollars, when I approached the New Brunswick border.

I was aiming for the cheaper fuel of New Brunswick, and therefore I ignored the stations before the border which claimed 1.41. That nearly proved to be my undoing however, for the gas gauge was creeping lower and lower as I came to the border, and I had given up on my dream of gas in Edmunston. Now I was aiming for the Irving on the border where I usually didn’t stop because it was likely more expensive. I was now thinking that I would be lucky to make it there, or at least close enough that it wouldn’t be a long walk.

I counted off the mileage markers which descended toward the border, and finally, just as I got there, I took an exit for a gas station. It proved to be the Irving I was aiming for, now hidden behind a kilometre-long exit. I barely made it into the station, and I fancied for a moment as I shut down the engine that it coughed to death just before I turned the key.

Once I was refueled and back on the highway, I could turn my mind to arrival and away from worries about running out of gas. I had driven the tank as low as I ever had, for it took forty-one litres when I filled it, and I think the tank is only rated for forty. Likely the extra litre was the pipe and I was nearly out.

The night cooled off as I drove into New Brunswick but after playing tag with a truck on the long hills, I finally left the highway at Woodstock and drove toward my friend’s place in Millville. None of the small roads are that great this time of year, but the broken pavement of the Woodstock road was worse. There were a few signs which indicated bumps, but they were located at the only smooth spots. Other parts of the road were terribly broken up, and I began to drive slower. On one occasion, at an unmarked spot, the car went over a hump and crashed down hard into a pothole on the other side. I slowed down even more, and after another one, I was only driving sixty kilometres an hour. I was tired enough, for it was two in the morning, that I was tempted to drive faster, but the condition of the road bade me not to.

Dennis had emailed so I knew to expect the couch made up into a bed, so I brought my things into the house, and laid down for four hours of sleep before I heard him stirring to go to work. I rose with him, and checked email and informed people I had arrived, and chatted with him and his daughter before they left to work and school.

Posted in Writing | Comments Off on The Long Road Home: The Second Day

The Long Road Home: The First Day

I had just replaced my distributer in my car—to solve its tendency to die even after it was warmed up, and then the throttle body gasket in an effort to fulfill Joe the mechanic’s best guess as to why the idle was unstable, and I felt I was ready for the long drive east. At the other end was my cabin, in who knows what condition after eight months of abandonment, and between me and that destination was around three thousand kilometres of driving.

Theoretically the car was ready for the trip, but I had only briefly contemplated the nonfictional heater fan. It was warm enough in Winnipeg that I was more worried about whether the car could endure the trip.

I left on a Thursday morning, just before ten o’clock. I carefully locked up, answered a few emails, and then drove west through the downtown and then into the sprawling eastern part of the city. The route I had planned out for leaving the city proved to be blocked by a slow-moving train so I turned south and tried my luck again. That was also blocked by the same train, so once again I turned south, found a major avenue going east and hoped it would jump over the tracks by way of a bridge. When the flashing lights in the distance showed that the train was approaching, I turned off a side street, following a van who was following a CN rail truck. I was hoping they knew of a back way out of the city, for with the idle in my car surging, I didn’t want to sit for the half hour while the train slowly crept through town.

Many people call for Winnipeg to relocate its train yards outside of the city, and I could see their point, especially at this moment, but the CN truck driver knew where he was going, and before long we were bumping over the tracks where the train had not yet approached enough to alert the signals, and I was soon on my way east.

I stopped at Richter, which is a small town east of Winnipeg which has a Husky gas station beside the highway. I usually stop there on the way west, since by then my car would have gone nearly seven hundred kilometres since the last fill in Thunder Bay. That means that the Richter fill-up is often enough to get me through the winter, since I rarely use the car in the city, and take it off the road entirely in November. I only use the car to drive Tara home a few times, Colleen to her house a few times, and once to take Samidha home. For my own part, I would go on a bi-monthly grocery store trip with Colleen, and that was the sum of my city driving. I still had a third of a tank when I pulled into Richter and loaded up with fresh gas. I had used a gas stabilizer over the winter, but I could smell the gas was stale when I was changing the gasket for the throttle body. The car seemed to work better with the fresh gas, and I also topped up the tires, since they were a bit slack and that would affect both tire life and gas mileage over thousands of kilometres.

At first the weather was a mixture of sun and cloud and that kept the car warm enough. I even fantasized that since I had pulled the heater out of its hole under the dash, that air was coming in through the gap and was slightly heated by the heater block. When I approached western Ontario, however, the true nature of my heating situation became more apparent. Colleen and I had joked about me staying an extra weekend just so we could spend more time together, but now that the car was beginning to cool off and I thought about how I could have taken the time to buy a junkyard heater, that was beginning to look more attractive.

The car worked great, which was a mercy considering I had wrapped a blanket around my legs and I was still chilly. As the day grew later, and spots of rain began to decorate the windscreen, I wrapped in another blanket and looked at the snow peering from the woods as I drove. It was much cooler in western Ontario, and I hoped that it would be warmer near Lake Superior.

By the time I was taking the by-pass around Thunder Bay, the temperature had dropped and I was starting to become hungry. I didn’t relish the idea of eating in a cold car, so I grabbed the bag of carrots I had put together and ate those after my fill-up. The gas mileage was the same, at least, for I was seven hundred kilometres before I found the gas station I typically aim for outside of Thunder Bay. It was growing dark, with intermittent rain, but the cold was the worst problem. As I rounded the corner of the lake at Rossport and began to turn south to Sault St Marie the windows began to fog up. As well, it was foggy outside and by times I was only driving sixty kilometres an hour and right on the yellow line so I could see where to go.

The driving was becoming too dangerous by the time I pulled over in Thessalon. I had wanted to get as far south as possible, but not by having an accident in moose country or wasting time and fuel driving so slowly. I pulled into the tourist information and under the brilliant light shining right into my car, I assembled my various blankets. I knew it would be freezing at night, so I had brought my minus twenty sleeping bag, as well as another, and three blankets for padding or possible warmth. I was some minutes getting warm, but when I did, I was soon asleep. I had only slept six hours the night before, and even though it was only eleven o’clock, I slept deeply enough that I was only woken a few times by having to switch position.

I had thought a number of times while I drove that few would endure what I almost see as normal. Most people would have never set out on a road trip without a working heater, and fewer still would contemplate sleeping in a cold car. My decision to do so was partially based on parsimony, but it was mainly about time. I wanted to get as far as possible the first day, and waste as little time as possible getting to sleep so I could start early the next day. That would not happen very easily with renting a motel room. Thus it was that I found myself waking in the night to try to stretch my aching knees. I am too old to sleep in a backseat of a Honda anymore.

Posted in Writing | Comments Off on The Long Road Home: The First Day

Mud People

He once told the children about a people made from mud who lived upside down from the surface. They live just like we do, except their floor is our floor, and every step we make is a step for them. Their roof keeps the mud from welling up into their home, like our roof keeps the rain off our heads. They have pets and friends and parties and jobs, and in that way they are just like us, except they don’t know about the sun over our heads. They know about a giant glowing molten ball in the centre of their universe, but the stars and the planets for them are merely thicker clumps of stone in the pudding that is their daily existence.

He imagined them throwing out garbage, which for them would be made from bubbles of gas found in the rock and mud. They would bury it into the air above them, which is where all their waste would go, and volcanos, he told the kids, is where they dump the gases from cities. Earthquakes are moving day, and tsunamis just a by-product. When lava flows over the top of the ground they dig a bit deeper into their ground, which is our sky, and when there are mudslides the entire village celebrates.

The most puzzling aspect of their world is our intrusion into it. They sense the shafts of our mines, although they see them as caused by a natural force, like erosion in a stream, but they view the concrete pylons which support the biggest buildings as stalagmites, but graves are entirely different matter. When a person is buried, they know the ground is opened temporarily and then a vacant space is left in a bubble. Once the grave begins to fill with dirt they get a closer look at a mirror of themselves, and that’s where their philosophy departments begin their work. They have seen buried bodies for millennia, but only recently have they noticed the ritual of grave placement, and observed how each buried body takes longer to collapse into dirt than the ones from former years. They know nothing about embalming fluid—although the chemical signature would be recognizable—or hermitically-sealed coffins, mausoleums and tombs. They recognize the general outline of the bodies, and from there they guess at the dimensions of our world even if they can never enter it.

Some scientists have sent probes, and they have drilled into the open air. We experience that as volcanos and sink holes, and some say that even caves are their attempt to mine the air like we mine the rock. They are likely looking for gases which they can use in their manufacturing process, just like we seek for minerals. When an area becomes particularly porous, people would move away, claiming that underground streams were undermining the ground beneath their feet. This is the lower world poking its head into ours, and should never be mistaken as a natural phenomenon, like they mistake the mines and foundations of buildings.

The people who most understand those below are the miners. They hear strange sounds in the dark, as the pick of their doppelgänger pierces the air just as the above-ground pick thrusts through the rock. For many years blasting was outlawed in mining, and that came from the miners who were worried that they were destroying the world of another with their eagerness for metals. Now their voice is less important when it comes to mining strategies, although when some miners become trapped belowground they talk about shapes in the dark which emerge from the walls and which deliver water and solid limestone nodes. They throw rocks and tap to try for a form of communication, but other than a mythical game of soccer deep below ground by miners in Chile trapped for over two months, no one has recorded their statements.

Above ground we go about our daily business, as if we were walking on ants every day, but each of our actions has an effect.

Posted in Supernatural, Writing | Tagged , | Comments Off on Mud People

The Dunning–Kruger Effect

He didn’t mean to laugh, but he was easily overcome by the mangled sentences coming out of the man’s mouth. It was a kind of disorder, that he couldn’t control himself once someone was mangling their words so much as to create a new dialect from ordinary utterances.

Being a citizen in the city meant that he would be confronted with surety on a daily basis, and he was constantly reminded of the man who had put lemon juice on his face and attempted to rob a bank. He had thought his face was invisible, and that meant he would not be recognized, even though he was a regular customer and lived less than four blocks away. When the police had come knocking he was incredulous. How did you know it was me, he had asked. I wore the juice.

He liked to imagine that man’s life. He’d held down a job like anyone else, paid rent to the landlord and maintained a phone. Presumably he was knowledgeable enough to keep himself fed, although he might also have subsisted on fast food. Somehow, his logical skills were so weak that it never occurred to him, as he was walking down the street to the bank with his gun, that no one pulled away from him in horror. Did he wonder why no children pointed and stared, exclaimed loudly, or threatened to tell their parents? What about the police he had passed. Didn’t he wonder why they didn’t at first startle and then look at him more closely with greater incredulity until they pulled their gun and followed their policy of fire-first-ask-later when they didn’t understand what they were looking at? What about the people in his building? Shouldn’t they have reared against the walls of the hallway as he passed, and if they recognized him by his clothing or way of walking, wouldn’t they address him by his name? Why did no one in the bank jump for the alarm or refuse to serve him? So many shops make such refusals when someone is missing a shirt or shoes, what about him?

Didn’t he wonder why no one was aghast until he pulled out his gun and waved it around? Why did his lurid gesture at the security camera have to be accompanied by the expression on his face? Likely there were at least a hundred people who didn’t notice the unusual sight of a man walking out of his building, going down the street to the bank and entering it for business, even though the man didn’t have a face. What did he imagine they would see? That the back of his hood would appear? Or perhaps the wall and door behind him? Didn’t he think they would wonder why he’d never seen such a thing in the street before? Did he think he was the only one who thought to apply a child’s version of invisible ink to his face and that it would make him invisible? Likely every child older than four or five had thought of it, and those who immediately realized it was nonsense would never entertain the thought again. Those who did it, even if they were slightly dimmer, they would have checked their new lack of look in a mirror. How did he not think to check on what the invisible ink, the lemon juice when applied to paper and let dry, would do to his face?

Who wouldn’t run right to the mirror and watch as their face slowly faded into obscurity to be replaced by either the muscle and bone behind it, or the wall behind them? Somehow the would-be bank robber never thought to conduct even the simplest of tests of his method. Instead, he rubbed lemon juice on his face and ran right out of the house to the bank in order to earn his twenty years in prison. The sentence was more for not understanding the basic scientific method than the crime, for it was so ludicrous, so impossible, that no one could have believed it was real.

The conspiracy people no doubt thought they would hold that tidbit in mind, in case they needed to disappear. Like many of their most tenaciously-believed ideas, they would never think to submit it to the rigor of a test, but instead they would recognize in the bank robber a fellow conspirator in their struggles. He would understand, from the safety of his cell, how a man might see a fake world all around him, and have to strike out on his own, a gold miner washing rich gold from his tin plate while those around him found nothing of value. The bank robber would know what it was like to struggle to wire the garage, change the oil in the car, install a new door, and why his wife had left. The secret group which was controlling everything the conspiracist did not understand had obscured knowledge of lemon juice as well, so even if the bank robber was behind bars, he’d heard the same call.

As he went through his ordinary life, he was surrounded by those people. Those who cursed out local transit, who hoarded guns like the British were coming, and were suspicious of everything around them including their own family. They were as liable to rob a bank and shoot innocent bystanders, and even as he laughed at the nonsense they were spouting—from their religious pamphlet stand beside the bank or knee-deep in water at the beach—he was leery of letting their ignorance infect him. Like a virus, their ideas of how the world worked were as unfounded as they were a slippage from reasoning. He would be better off laying on his lawn or throwing rocks at his own feet. How do they manage, he often wondered. How could they understand enough to turn a key in a lock, or choke the highways while they drove, or draw a paycheque from someone who thought enough of them to pay for their efforts? It was a good question for anyone.

Posted in Culture, Internet, Media, Supernatural, Superstition | Tagged , , | Comments Off on The Dunning–Kruger Effect

When Plagiarism Goes Wrong

One of the ways that students plagiarize, at least when they take material from online and attempt to incorporate it into their papers, is to run a thesaurus function—such as the synonym option in MSword—on certain words. They seldom trouble themselves with prepositions and articles, but tend to change nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs. Although this can obscure the similarity between their changed text and the original, often it merely mangles the original so profoundly that the signifier becomes overly slippery. Before long, the sentence they have spent precious minutes working on becomes vague where it needs to be precise, and overly exacting where it should be general.

Recently, I had my students write their paper on some stories from Thomas King’s 2005 collection of short stories A Short History of Indians in Canada. Often that provides them with rich research material as well as evocative explorations of indigeneity in Canada, but occasionally the plagiarizing student reaches for the opportunity to transform slightly awkward sentences found online into masterpieces of bizarre obfuscation and inadvertent poetic juxtaposition.

In this case, they chose to take some lines from an Amazon review of Thomas King’s short story collection, but their modifications became much more interesting than their source. The sentence they chose makes a statement about King’s novel which may be a bit overwrought and awkward, but generally is comprehensible: “Other times, as in King’s groundbreaking novel, Green Grass, Running Water, postcolonial work has borne truly remarkable, heartbreaking, mind-altering fruit.”

The principal argument of the sentence, that postcolonial texts are at once noteworthy, emotionally evocative, and can change their reader’s mind, is clumsily hidden behind a fruit analogy. The postcolonial text bears fruit which has these qualities, and King’s novel is just one example of that fecundity.

The grammar of such a sentence—already stretched by the analogy—staggers under the extra burden of tinkering with key words. The simple sentence is easier to modify and is much more tolerant of mistakes, but the complex utterance, with its witty attempt at metaphorical language, is stubbornly resistant.

My student made seemingly innocent changes to the words, but the sentence they produced by that method became comically incoherent, especially when they struggled to both mimic the analogy and obscure that they had taken it from an online source: “At other times, like King’s epoch-making novel Greengrass, Running Water work after the colonial era brings a truly remarkable, mind-burning, fruit-changing mind.”

The original “other times” has seemingly taken on an extra time dimension, as now post-colonial work is only remarkable “at other times” and most certainly not at this time. Even the simple conversion of “as in” to “like” means that King’s novel—especially with the missing comma after the title—does not exhibit the tendencies of the postcolonial text, but rather becomes an adjective for work from a posterior colonial period that is similar to something.

My student also changed “groundbreaking” to “epoch-making,” likely because a synonym generator told them the words were equivalent, but now King’s novel has become much more profound. It does not merely lay the foundation for a tradition—in the sense of breaking ground for an enduring structure—but now it has transformed an entire epoch. They have used the same strategy on the theory term “postcolonial,” but now they have changed a theoretical definition widely used in cultural studies to examine the effects of exploitation to something that merely happens after colonization. King’s novel is now lumped in with anything that was produced after the “colonial era,” if that even means anything in the thoroughly colonized Canada of the present day. The term which lent meaning to the novel, now merely defines its publication date.

Perhaps because they didn’t understand the use of the word “borne” and how it contributes to the original analogy, they changed that to “brings.” Even if that were the only change made to the sentence, it would still destroy the analogy, as the novel would then be responsible for the delivery of fruit rather than its generation.

Wisely, in terms of meaning, if not in terms of detection, they retained “truly remarkable” although they could easily have changed those terms without upsetting the meaning of the sentence as a whole. “Truly” might easily become “actually” or “correctly” (at least that’s what my word processor spit out), and “remarkable” could have become “outstanding” or “significant.” Once this is spliced into the original sentence, the meaning changes little: “Other times, as in King’s groundbreaking novel, Green Grass, Running Water, postcolonial work has borne actually outstanding, heartbreaking, mind-altering fruit” or “Other times, as in King’s groundbreaking novel, Green Grass, Running Water, postcolonial work has borne correctly significant, heartbreaking, mind-altering fruit.” It is not a great sentence, but it would only annoy those who are trained to watch for diction errors.

Oddly, those two words remain intact in the sentence, and instead my student chose to change “heartbreaking” to “mind-burning” and “mind-altering fruit” to “fruit-changing mind.” The sentence takes on a terrible splendor as a result of these arbitrary changes. A “heartbreaking” moment could certainly be described as “mind-burning,” but it would certainly give the listener pause. The notion of sorrow and empathy are gone, and all that is left is a devastating physical effect on the brain. The emotional content has been sacrificed in order to prioritize the intellectual destruction, and any notion of empathy has been lost in the general mental conflagration.

As the reader has already come to realize, I am slowly moving toward the most daring change the student made. The “mind-altering fruit” has been—perhaps arbitrarily—changed to “fruit-changing mind.” Throwing caution to the winds, the student has switched the noun “fruit” to make it part of a compound adjective, and taken the “mind” portion of the compound adjective and made it the noun. This radical change no doubt felt like a risk to the student, but they likely had no idea what abortive monstrosity they had created. Rising Caliban-like from the stilted prose of the original, King’s novel has created a mind which can change fruit. The mind that has become the sentence’s focus, even as it “burns” in a “remarkable” and self-referential fashion, has taken on a superpower that many a culinary expert would wish to possess. The mind that can change fruit, presumably from one fruit to another—the sentence is recalcitrant on the exact nature of the gift—but very possibly into anything. This prophetic shift, as I imply above, has also distorted the earlier changed compound adjective. The adjectives were stacked up dangerously in the original, but now they are positively perilous. The mind that the sentence is most concerned with not only burns itself, or possibly other minds, but it does so at the same time that it is engaging in “fruit-changing.” The mind has gone from being altered, in the original sentence, to distorting the sentence far beyond its original weave.

The resultant sentence plods along rather complacently from its humble beginnings in a plagiarized online Amazon review, but without informing the reader their mind is about to be burned and fruit-changed, it makes a sudden, dimension-ignoring lateral shift. At some moment the sentence does not deign to discuss, work posterior to the colonial era—defined by a long string of adjectives part of which are the title of King’s novel—have brought a quite remarkable mind which both can burn itself and change the nature of fruit.

Although this sounds like a warning against plagiarism, regardless of the student’s skill level or understanding of the plagiarized document, I think the inadvertent collision of words that likely have never been lumbered together have much more to say. I did a quick google search for the frequency of the string, “fruit-changing mind,” only to find that out of the “30 trillion unique individual pages” that exist at this historical moment, one website contained the words forced into each other’s company in that exact order. Even that sentence didn’t have the temerity to construct that sentence without a comma to lessen its impact: “change posture life passion fruit, changing mind” (

In the artificial courage of scholarly desperation, my student has created something that has never existed before, and although some might say that their time was better spent learning how to write instead of modifying the words of another, the end result is both horrifyingly evocative and a clank of a metal tin into a trash can. They have ignored the rules of the language and created a misbegotten monster which will not survive the birth canal, but they have also stumbled into the morass which is language use. By remaining ignorant of their tools, and by using a thesaurus function like they would a framing hammer, they have spiked their own hand to the bench. They have also, unwittingly, inadvertently, forced their reader to slow down and ponder what can be done when deceit and indolence turn their hand to expression. Much the same way poets force their readers to ponder the slipperiness of the intended meaning, the birth-slime wriggling of the signifier, my student has troubled the very relationship between signifier and signified. Although they have, perhaps inadvertently, earned themselves a failing grade, they have also the distinction of constructing a three-word string that has never before existed.

Original Sentence:

Other times, as in King’s groundbreaking novel, Green Grass, Running Water, postcolonial work has borne truly remarkable, heartbreaking, mind-altering fruit.”


Modified by my plagiarizing student:

At other times, like King’s epoch-making novel Greengrass, Running Water work after the colonial era brings a truly remarkable, mind-burning, fruit-changing mind.”

Posted in Education, Internet, Teaching | Tagged , , | Comments Off on When Plagiarism Goes Wrong

Hatred of Muslims and the Latest Red Scare

I had the pleasure of growing up in North America when the reigning hatred was of communists, although most people didn’t know what a communist was and—because of weak historical understanding—only vaguely associated them with the Soviet Union. Because I am of that age, I was present when the contemporary hatred first began to surface.

At the risk of sounding like Michael Moore, when I was young North America was a very different place. The cold war was winding down with Mikhail Gorbachev and the fall of the Berlin wall, the military industrial complex was facing cutbacks with austerity measures under Reagan and belt-tightening under the Bush presidents, and the system desperately needed a new—and they hoped amorphous—enemy. If we faced an enemy like Vietnam again, then we could easily either destroy them or lose another war, but with an enemy like a faceless terrorist, both within and without, the war could continue as long as the factories making arms were open for business.

Before the World Trade Center bombing, however, there were signs that a new enemy was on the policy horizon. In the year preceding the bombing, Newsweek magazine, as well as other news/opinion sources, began to carry stories about China as a military threat. I followed these avidly, and since I was living in the United States at the time, I asked the students in my critical thinking class what country the media was encouraging the public to think about as an enemy. Not surprisingly, they had seen the same trends, so they said China.

A few months later, after the World Trade Center bombing, I happened to mention the conversation to them again, but to my shock, no one remembered what country we had been discussing, although many of them were of the opinion that it must have been Afghanistan. Somehow they had been taught who to hate and fear despite their earlier suppositions, and then had forgotten that they had always been at war against Eurasia, to quote Orwell’s prophetic 1984: “Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. . . . Officially the change of partners had never happened.  Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.  The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.”

On the day of the World Trade Center bombing, I was eating breakfast and watching the events unfold with my friend’s wife. We both saw the second plane hit and actually knew what happened before the newscaster on the ground, since he had his back to the buildings and the camera was pointed toward them. America ground to a halt as people tried to digest what had happened. We knew that we had regularly bombed other countries, and killed many more civilians in the process, but many were flabbergasted that it could happen on their soil.

That afternoon I had two questions for my friends as we watched the footage. I wanted to know what was going to happen to media image of China, since until that moment it had been a military threat, and I wanted to know how long before the media reported they knew who had done the bombing. Almost immediately, China was on the list of the country’s allies, so that answered that question.

Despite my estimate that an enemy would be presented within three hours, my friend ventured that it would be immediate. He was correct. Long before anything was known about what had happened or who was responsible, the news sources began to show pictures of Osama bin Laden and suggesting that he might have been responsible. “Might” changed to “very likely” to certain, and within an hour he was the one who had committed the bombing, and by the next day the country was up in arms. Note that all this happened on the basis of suspicion since there was no time to gather evidence. When bin Laden was clearly responsible, no one knew yet who was on the planes and no one had taken responsibility for the attack. That did not slow down the snap judgements required by the moment, however, and, as any who lived during that time can attest, people were terrified and not thinking clearly.

That moment was a watershed for the new hatred of Muslims. Before that moment, and the various wars or incursions into the Middle East—even if we consider the Persian Gulf War and Iraq conflicts—the media had never presented the wars as based on a religious disagreement. After the World Trade Center bombing, however, the new enemy became terrorism, and that was general enough that it required a face. When communism was a threat it could wear any face, and that fact was a large part of the propaganda. But the face of terrorism became Muslim. The little known and largely ignored minority living in the United States became targets, and as the war machine heaved itself to its feet and began to swallow the country’s GDP, Muslims all over the world became the enemy of choice.

Suddenly the US-installed Taliban who had been gifted with arms and cash in the eighties so that they could hold back the Russians became an enemy. My friend always says that one of the biggest foreign policy mistakes of the US is their tendency to make allies of dangerous people, arm them with the latest weaponry and give them lots of money to do their dirty work, and then make them into well-armed implacable enemies by betraying them. Think back to Reagan’s selling arms to the Iran–Contras in order to illegally fund the right-wing terrorist Contra groups in Nicaragua. Osama bin Laden became another one of those frenemies, for the US funded him in Afghanistan and then turned their back once the Russians lost interest in the operation.

After the World Trade Center bombing, the media took up the torch and waved it about frantically as they rationalized the war in Afghanistan and then later Iraq. Bin Laden became the face of terror, and for many Americans—who had given no thought to Muslims in their life and could not point to the Middle East on a map—he was the terrifying face of this new religion. They didn’t know that Arab scholars were responsible for their sanitation systems, the invention of the glider, their numbering systems and algebra—likely they thought the term Arabic numbers was a coincidence—but the Quran soon became the best-selling book in the United States as they struggled to find out why Muslims wanted to kill them.

Unfortunately, they went about that search in the wrong way, for that is like reading the bible to find out why an anti-abortion protestor would bomb a clinic. The terrorist actions are not connected to religious values, but with the media stoking the fires of hatred, Sikhs were attacked—by Americans confusing turbans with Islam—and a vicious force of anti-Muslim hatred swept the country.

The war in Afghanistan was painted with the same religious brush, as President W. Bush made unfortunate reference to crusades when talking about the invasion, and the media began to talk about the position of women under the Taliban’s sharia law. No one cared about the women when the mujahideen were being funded in the eighties, but suddenly the women not being able to drive or choose their husband or take a part in government became a problem worthy of war. The same or worse policies under Saudi Arabian rule wasn’t deemed to be of importance, since they were our friends, but Afghanistan, the media told us, was a nest of vipers.

Although politicians made inflammatory speeches about Muslims, like they do, the media became the one to fan the flames until the conflagration painted every Muslim as a terrorist and hate crime as patriotism. This continues to this day, as people of Middle Eastern descent are harassed in North America and Western Europe and mosques are denied planning commission permission to build or are bombed after construction.

Last year I was talking to the same friend who knew an enemy would be declared so quickly after the bombing, and he asked me why I support Muslims. He cited their treatment of women as an example and called me out on my hypocrisy for pretending to be pro-women’s rights and yet not harbouring a hatred of Muslims. He was difficult to converse with, but I knew what media messages he had been subject to, so I could explain a few things about why his views were problematic.

I first told him that I didn’t really know much about the Islamic world. Other than my friends who are Muslims, and my many students who subscribe to the faith but are much more interested in their phones, I don’t make it a priority to find out much about Islam. I find all religions silly, and although I would not prevent another from believing what they wish as long as it is harmless, I have no interest in controlling anyone’s belief system. As well, I have only been to two Muslim-majority countries—Malaysia and Indonesia—and in Indonesia I was in an area of Sumatra that was largely Christian. There I was able to observe women carrying huge loads of wood while men idly swiped at grasses on the side of the road with the machete. I doubt that religion has as much to do with men taking advantage of power over women anywhere in the world as greed and rather pathetic notions of superiority. In Malaysia, I saw no such signs as western media had told me to look for, women hidden behind veils and creeping along in the street, or being publicly beaten while other men look on approvingly. Instead, I saw a South East Asian people carrying on with their lives just like I had in Thailand and Cambodia.

More importantly, I told my friend, I found his worry about the women in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia puzzling, since I doubt he could point to the countries on a map and knew nothing about them. He told me to look it up online, but I asked him why he cared. “The puzzling thing,” I said to him, “is that you never cared about Muslims before. Although now you don’t know a single Muslim, you are suddenly against that religion. Where do you suppose that vehement distaste comes from? You didn’t say anything about Muslims ten years ago. You never thought about them at all. Is it coincidental that you, and millions of others who are otherwise relatively tolerant, have lots of negative opinions about Islam?”

For me, that is the problematic part of the media’s role in this mixture of hatred people now have for Muslims in the west. In my high school class a fellow student who wasn’t notable for his intelligence said, “Every communist should be shot.” The teacher, quite responsibly, asked him what a communist was, and he replied, “I don’t know. But they should be shot.” He had merely been subject to an older propaganda attempt, and now that the target has swung away from communism and moved on to terrorism and been given a Middle Eastern face, the racist machine of culture has rumbled to life. I am sure that if I asked him now, he would have quite firm opinions about another group of people he knows nothing about.

Millions of people in North America who never paused to think anything about Muslims suddenly are full of vociferous beliefs. They know what Muslims think, what they want, and most crucially, are afraid of them. They are afraid enough that they are willing to sign on to any government policy, start any war, and treat any of their neighbours like garbage. Without the media machine this would never have happened, so now when the media reports community concerns that mosques are being attacked by far right groups, I can’t help but see them as culpable. The ideas that are the definition of the far right arise as a result of propaganda like we have seen leveled against Muslims. These are not groups which have always existed just out of sight. They are individuals driven by hatreds that have been encouraged, and every time the media suggests that the white domestic mass killer is possibly mad and the believer in Islam is a terrorist, they add fuel to that particular racist fire.

I lived though the waning days of the red scare, when people had largely gotten over the propaganda about the Soviet Union and were prepared to live their lives more normally. The rabid mobs that attacked those they thought were communists in the streets had disappeared, just like the Klan was largely confined to a few embittered outcroppings. Now that the racists have a new out-group to focus on, they have dusted off their sheets and hoods and encouraged others who would never have thought anything about Muslims without the constant barrage from the media and they are now causing havoc in a society that could easily be peaceful and prosperous.

This is useful for governments which would like to have less scrutiny, as well as for the military industrial complex which feeds off wars, but it is ultimately destructive for those short-sighted goals as well. Hatreds tend to breed hatreds, and now that we have people shooting up mosques and hitting women wearing head scarves in the street, it is only a matter of time before those mobs come for other groups.

When that inevitably happens, the media will lament that they have no idea how such hatred arises, but they will be there to stoke the flames for the next out-group and grow their brand even while they reduce the possibility that they will have a future. The world they are leading us toward is not one which will allow the media to tell any story they wish, and they might easily find themselves out of a job, although if they are not willing to be responsible to the society they serve perhaps they have outlived their usefulness anyway.

In their place, we might have peer-to-peer information sharing instead. If we bemoan the condition of our fellow citizen’s understanding of others, it’s worth remembering that a seven-year-old girl tweeting about the bombing in Aleppo, Syria did more to bring the story of that war to the west than any of the weak handwringing of the various media sources. Trapped while the bombs fell, she tweeted, “I just want to live without fear”, “I miss school so much”, and “I am very afraid I will die tonight.”

In the future we may have to pick though the minefields of hatreds that our mass media have made of our information sources and choose those which lay claim to messages beyond the old “I hate communists” lines of my fifteen year old classmate. I look forward to when Muslims become either our friends or unknown, but I am not that excited about the new enemy such a polarized system seems to require. When the tiller is turned, I would caution all of us to watch those around us and see how they shift with the wind coming from a new direction and proudly proclaim “Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.”

Posted in Activism, Culture, Education, History, Media, News, Politics, Religion, Social Media | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Hatred of Muslims and the Latest Red Scare

Please Leave a Message

In the early nineties answering machines on phones were ubiquitous, which means that nearly everyone had left a message on one and therefore knew what to do upon hearing the greeting. For some reason, that didn’t stop people from leaving instructions on their machine telling people how to leave a message. Who they imagined would be calling them who wouldn’t know what to do once they received a message is hard to say. I don’t think that was the problem, however. I think instead they were caught between two questions: “What message do I leave if it is not the standard set of instructions,” and “How do I tell people they have reached a machine?”

This conundrum arose when my roommate and I tried to set up a new answering machine. I initially had the message say, “This is a machine,” since that is all the information I felt the caller needed. My roommate felt that was too rude so he changed that to “Hello, you have reached our residence. No one is available to take your call at this time so please leave a message after the beep.” Regardless of my argument that everyone knew what to do, my roommate demanded the more polite message stand. I wasn’t being purely reactionary, for I found far too many messages were overly lengthy and unnecessary. In such a case, the caller, standing in the cold at the payphone, or ringing from their car, would have to endure a message for no good reason. If a machine is answering they knew no person was either present or willing, and if they wanted to leave a message they knew perfectly well how that is done.

Once another roommate moved in, I told him what I thought when he was setting up his new answering machine. He agreed heartily, partly because he was always interested in anything that went against the status quo he’d been brought up in, and partly because what I said made sense. In his case, for he was overly verbose and redundant, even his truncated message was still longer than it needed to be: “You have reached a machine. You know what to do.” Despite my plaints that telling someone they know what to do is not useful—for if they don’t they wouldn’t learn it from the message, and if they do telling them will achieve nothing—that message stood for a number of months. He was constitutionally incapable of saying anything quickly, and also he liked to lord his perceived cleverness over other people, so the longer message was his statement to the world that he had out-thought the masses. This predilection had landed him in trouble more than once, but it seemed to be impossible to curb.

For instance, when his ex-wife and he were fighting over custody of their child, he confided in me that she was a bad risk due to her inability to control her temper. “Why don’t you record her using the answering machine,” I told him. “Record what she says and then when she freaks out you will have evidence in court.”

Whether the evidence would be admissible or not turned out to be a moot question, for he engaged her in a lengthy and artificially saccharine conversation—at least on his end—trying to bait her into a rage, and then, to cap it off, he could not resist pointing out to her that he’d recorded the entire conversation. His self-satisfied grin when he hung up the phone and pressed stop on the answering machine was infuriating. He actually thought he was being clever. he had once again proved to her that he was much smarter, and thought further ahead.

“You are such an idiot,” I told him.

“That was great. I have her freaking out on the recording.”

“But you couldn’t resist . . . you couldn’t help but show her how much cleverer you were, so you told her. You’re a moron. Now she will be recording every conversation you have with her and you will never get her to freak out again. Just because you had to show how much smarter you were.”

That self-perception of his wittiness led him to leave a much lengthier message than necessary on the machine when we lived together. He could not resist but show people he was cleverer, and to shop around his new great idea. As well, once he had an audience, he had to hold onto them, and if that made the message longer, then it was a price he was willing to pay. He went on to make speeches for a living, so mercifully he found a profession that ideally suited his penchant for verbosity and wit.

When I lived alone and could control my own answering machine, its message was, “This is a machine.” Although some people complained, they knew exactly how to engage with it. The message contained all they needed to know, and instead of wondering if they have found a dead phone, or a non-functioning machine, they could be assured that they could leave their message and I would receive it. A few years later, I changed the message on my newer machine to, “Si tu no estas aqui.” That line from one of my favourite Spanish songs means, “If you are not here . . ..”  The hanging ellipsis means the caller knows what to do, and the line in Spanish, even if they don’t understand it, will indicate they have reached a machine. If they were uncertain the voice was mine, they shortly learned that it was, and before long they became accustomed to it.

Answering machines are largely automatic now, and many of the messages are not modifiable. Oddly, they have institutionalized the lengthy message I tried to avoid years ago and even to this day an answering machine tells the caller to leave a message after the beep, despite it being some forty years since answering machines were invented and everyone knows exactly what to do.

Interestingly, this same redundant information has found its way to YouTube and similar video sharing sites. At some point in a large percentage of online videos someone appears to tell the viewer that they should Press Like and Subscribe if they liked the video. Once again, this information is entirely unnecessary. Anyone who is that new to the internet that they are not already aware of this option will likely never be able to find the video again despite subscribing—if they can even figure out how to do that—and all others know what to do if they wish. The request achieves nothing, but again, the content creators are caught like my old roommate. They want to say something of the matter to their audience, but don’t know what message to leave. They could merely say, “This is a video online” but I think that would feel redundant even to those who most eagerly want to insert demands to subscribe to their video.

Curiously, even as the format of our digital interactions changes, the inflexible quality in the equation is the human creator of the message and their notion of the receiver. Perhaps that explains why such redundant information is so resistant to change that we still have not excised it from our answering machines or YouTube videos.

The latest venue I have found this type of messaging appearing is Facebook Marketplace. I wasn’t aware, until I was posting something for sale, that when people click a button saying they are interested, Facebook sends a pointless message to the seller. The message, rather infuriatingly asks, “Is this item still available?” Once I received a few of these I began to wonder if people were leaving postings up of items that had sold and this was a reaction to that, or if people ignored the for sale marker, or if they didn’t know what else to say. Rather like people telling others to click on a link to subscribe, or speak after the beep to leave a message, I thought the potential buyers didn’t know what else to write and therefore wrote something trite and pointless.

I was wrong. Facebook itself, mimicking our most mentally exhausting tendencies, is sending out a message that the sender does not intend, and therefore forcing some millions of people to reply, “Yes, it is still available” even while we wonder what was wrong with the world. This works for Facebook advertising, for it means that both parties spend more time online looking at ads, rather like the lengthy messages on answering machines means that long distance callers are spending their precious paid minutes listening to nonsense while they wait to leave their message, but for a system made by us, for ostensibly for our convenience, it wastes our time and energy.

A friend was over when I was working on my dissertation and he was annoyed when he used my word processor to write a letter. I had configured the autocorrect so that I could merely type two letters, such as pm, and the word processor would insert Postmodern. It was a term I used constantly, so I took the time to make an autocorrect entry. He wanted to tell his friend he would be arriving at six pm, but knew too little about the autocorrect space bar cue to put a space first and then return to his word. I explained the matter to him and although he understood, as a hopeful graduate student himself, I could tell he thought it was excessively precious. My dissertation was about historiographic metafiction, I told him, I only need to type hm.

Our time is precious, and that is why we built machines in the first place. We have only a little time on the planet, and even if we are only spending it watching YouTube videos and buying junk through Facebook Marketplace, we still should demand that our time is our own. I am not exactly conducting an efficiency war, and just because I’m a writer you can tell that I have lost all the battles before I start, but I want some of my time back, and I want to hold those accountable who are bleeding my life away for either their financial gain, or mere narcissistic pigheadedness.

Posted in Culture, Internet, Social Media | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Please Leave a Message

A Response to the Signs

When a sign about the exploitation of children went up in my neighbourhood, I thought little about it, partly because it didn’t look professional enough to have come from the desk of an official service. Instead, it had more in common with the type of sign that asks for a cat’s whereabouts, or informs the purchasing public of a pending yard sale.

I walked past the sign a few times before I noticed that it had been modified by someone with a marker, and that made me examine it more closely. Someone in my neighbourhood had been motivated enough in the cold of winter to subvert the sign’s request, and that caused me to think more about what they saw that I had missed that made them respond in such a definitive fashion.

My neighbourhood is not famous for its trust of either the police service or social services, so at first I imagined that a common kneejerk reaction inspired the modification. As I photographed the sign, and then thought about the grammatical implications of their rebuttal, however, I began to see a more profound story I’d become oblivious to behind the posters on the telephone poles on my daily walk.

The sign reads: “If you see a child or young girl being exploited, please report it, don’t regret it. 204-986-3464.” It appears to be amateurish partly because it doesn’t feature a fancy font or a graphic—such as a clip art representation of reporting or the police. Instead, its appeal is formatted simply in a large Arial font; it looks as bland as though it had been put together by a group of indifferent high school students in a class. It looked as though their teacher had demanded that they do something to raise awareness about a topic they didn’t feel affected their lives.

Part of this assessment has to do with the rather suspect grammar. The sign worries about the treatment of “a child or young girl” without being aware that the girl might fit under the category of child; as well, the sentence keeps going long after a full stop is called for. The attempt to divide the “young girl” from being “a child” is possibly significant. Although the implications of that choice are no doubt manifold, the reasoning is somewhat obscure. Does that mean the sign maker is more interested in the young girl’s exploitation? If so, why is the child mentioned at all? Do they believe a girl is more subject to exploitation than the other, presumably male children? If so, why mention the other children at all? Also, why would the sign mention the child first, if they were prioritizing the girl, instead of merely reversing them on the sign to more accurately represent their interest and concerns?

Although it is a minor grammatical point, they also wrote “a child or young girl,” which implies they are concerned about the “young girl” aspect of the child. They could have written “a child or a young girl” which would further separate them in their worries, and further divide the children along gender lines. Perhaps this is trying to put too fine a point on it, and the utterance merely represents a grammatical oversight, for the concerns with the sentence are more profound than that possible slip.

The “don’t regret it” portion of the sentence seems to be tacked on the end of the entire sentence, rather than performing a crucial function. The sign maker should have, for emphasis as well as grammar, separated the last portion of their run-on sentence (as your pedantic teacher in school would call it) with a full stop and made their appeal more emphatic, but instead they chose to tack the “don’t regret it” onto a sentence already burdened by the uneasy separation between girls and other children.

What the writers lost in emphasis they gained in a kind of dissonant poetic alliteration. The final consonance of “report it” and “regret it” appeals to the ear, but in terms of the delivered message they scarcely fit together. One is an imperative request while the other is an appeal to conscience. As well, although they sound similar they are strikingly different actions, but perhaps that is the point. Perhaps we are meant to compare the reporting with the regretting, in some kind of reverse fashion which would imply that regretting would follow directly on the heels of the lack of reporting. A semicolon might have been of greater use, for then the reader would be informed of the connection between reporting and regretting, still retain the alliteration, and not be disconcerted by the sledgehammer emphasis of two imperative appeals coming so quickly after the other.

I looked up the phone number to make sure it was a real reporting line and not merely a scam of some sort, although now that I say that I’m not sure how such a scam would work. The phone number is a dedicated tip line for the Winnipeg police department and although it does not expressly deal with exploited children, it certainly manages those reports as well as a dozen other topics.

The last portion of the sign, in terms of how it is presented to the passerby, became—after a few weeks—the rejoinder of one of my neighbours. They declare—in quite decent handwriting given the medium of a sign on a post—that “THIS IS A LIE.” I cannot tell if the capitalization is deliberate and meant to supplement the message or whether it is merely an artifact of how this person writes, but any of their readers are certainly more than accustomed to similarly declarative messages online. When someone in the nearly ubiquitous comment section of a social media source wants to be heard above the noise, they shout THEIR OPINION by using capitals. The person who editorialized on the sign might not have meant to evoke volume and rudeness, but their use of the same coding implies that they were going for that effect. Their choice of black might well be ascribed to the chance marker in their pocket, but to their credit, the colour they chose—or had chosen for them by chance—matches both the font on the sign, the import of their declaration, and the nicely-curved letters they were able to make despite standing in the cold and writing two metres in the air on a telephone pole.

Although most of their statement is written below the main part of the sign, largely on the blank space thoughtfully provided, it also overlaps the telephone number slightly. That may not be deliberate, for room for their statement is limited and, since they started a bit too far to the right, they were cramped for space once they reached the word lie. Since they didn’t cover the phone number entirely, or even consistently, I think we are asked to read this as accidental rather than a comment on the document as a whole or a wish to tinker with the ability of another to discern the number. The positioning of their writing—even if it is not deliberate—works to rather effectively emphasize the word lie. The word LIE sits alone surrounded by blank white space, and this has the effect of drawing the eye to the final word of their editorializing rather than the supporting prose of the rest of their sentence.

Merely because they wrote a response to a pre-existing and mass-produced sign, the graffiti becomes a richer document than the sign was without it. The original sign is responding to a perceived social problem, but the commentator is responding to both that perception, which they cast doubt upon, and the sign maker’s attempt at ameliorating the situation. They seemingly have taken the time to debate the merit of the choice the sign calls for, as well as represented something of their individual understanding of the situation. There is more of a personality performed by the quality of the handwriting, and the circumstances of its production, and that combines with the original intent of the sign to make their declaration rhetorically much richer than the original, rather poorly-formed request.

Perhaps because of this other rhetorical concerns, the content of the message, “This is a lie” is more difficult to parse. The “This” is used as a pronoun here and meant to refer to, presumably, a statement the sign has made. What portion of the sign it is referring to is not as easily decided, however. The commentator has made the determination that something on the sign is a lie; but part of the difficulty in identifying the pronoun’s antecedent is that the sign does not make a statement of fact.

If the sign were to state that “The sun and moon are the same size,” or any other statement of fact, then someone could quite legitimately suggest that the sign was perpetuating a lie. They would no doubt be able to point to measurements made by the astronomical field which would support their assertion, and despite not being privy to such information the sign’s readers might be happy enough with the rebuttal. Even if the sign were to venture a more controversial opinion, “Walnuts are better for your health than beans,” few would find a reason to dispute the information, despite feeling differently or wishing to question the basis of the assertion. Better in what way, they might demand, given that each offer different types of essential amino acids. Someone walking by such a sign—one that disputes either scientific verities or dietary matters best discussed with a nutritionist—would not pause at a claim about its untruth, partly due to the minus twenty degrees weather but also because we recognize grammatically that for something to be declared a lie it needs to be a statement to begin with.

The sign in question is not even asking a question, which would be problematic enough in determining how someone would respond with a statement about lying. If it were to ask, “Is the sky blue?” declaring it to be a falsehood would be equally problematic. Much more significantly, the sign rather mildly asks—and its use of the simple present conditional tense makes this even more clear—that if the reader becomes aware of such an event they should report it. The imperative that the reader report is even softened with a polite “please,” so it is likely not the information itself that the reader is responding to.

As the conditional clause makes clear, the reader is not being accused of under-reporting in the past; instead, they are cordially requested to keep their eyes open and consider contacting the relevant authorities if they suspect something untoward is happening to a child. Surely such a request does not even go far enough, and we might justly be annoyed with the sign’s authors that they weren’t more vehement over the question of child abuse. In any event, the sign as it stands should not be so virulent as to inspire such rancour, even if it were possible for it to be untrue.

Because the request is phrased as a conditional and therefore exists in a nebulous world of possibility, there is no statement that can be false. That is the reader’s first hint that the graffiti is responding to the sign’s implications, although those are difficult to discern. Perhaps the most obvious possibility the editorializing is responding to whether children are in fact exploited, but for them to hold that opinion they must either completely ignore nearly weekly news reports, or at least disbelieve their claims that child exploitation is a widespread concern. Even if they believe that such low numbers of children are being exploited that the sign is unnecessary, it’s difficult to fathom the mentality who would take it upon themselves to modify the sign in order to make a claim that there are not enough children harmed to be worth the paper or the time for someone to print the sign and staple it to a post. Most people, even if they were of that opinion, would still see the sign positively; they would likely think that anything that protects children is a good outcome for society, despite the time and effort taken to make a sign. Someone who wanted to exploit children would doubtlessly view the situation differently, but they would be unlikely to advertise their intentions by walking around the city defacing signs about their behaviour.

Perhaps the graffiti is in response to the suggestion that the person who does not report would later experience regret. It seems doubtful that anyone would feel so strongly about such a nebulous guess about their emotions in a given situation, however. The motivations of such a person are hard to imagine. They would be so outraged by the suggestion that they would be upset if a child was exploited when they could have prevented it, that they would take to the sign with a marker and quite soberly—for the letters do not look like they were formed in anger—declare the conjecture to be faulty.

These guesses do not seem to close with the actual reason someone would feel compelled to stand in the snow and state their opinion over a sign that pleads with them to perform what most would see as their social duty. Perhaps seeking for the lie does not work when focusing on the instances of abuse, and the possible feelings of regret, but rather there is a larger societal context which informs why someone in my neighbourhood went into the cold with a marker to correct what they saw as a wrong.

Perhaps they accept that exploitation is happening in the city, and perhaps even in their neighbourhood, but they reject that the proposal that they call the number is a good idea. For this to be true, we have to consider the relationship between the police and most of the people in my neighbourhood. Although the police are called when an emergency arises—just as they would be in other areas of the city—adding children to the mix complicates the police presence profoundly. Those same police are present when a child is taken by child and family services.

The relationship between child and family services and parents in Winnipeg has long been a combative one. Its origin likely pre-dates the Indian Act of 1876, which both stripped Indigenous people of their rights as well as confined them to reserves under the control of a patronizing system of governmental oversight. Before that they were enemy combatants in a war for land. When European invaders found two huge continents ripe for theft, they viewed the Indigenous people living on the land as an annoyance to be brushed aside. The history of continuous genocidal policies persist to the present day despite beginning with the invasion, theft of their lands and then broad-scale murder, until the Indian Act forced the Indigenous people to be subjects of the invading culture. The efforts to destroy the cultures of the locals by enacting colonial practices on their children began with the Residential School program. That in turn led to the grim legacy of the Sixties Scoop in which Indigenous children were taken from their parents and given—or in some cases sold—to white families in Canada and abroad.

The tendency of child and family services to error on the side of caution if the family is Indigenous is seen by many informed by such past practices. The hospital staff take it upon themselves to inform social services if an Indigenous mother is giving birth, and that inspires an investigative service to spring into action. If the mother and surrounding family—it’s worth recalling that Indigenous events typically involve huge extended families—is not considered to be fit to rear their child—a determination made largely based on colonial and class-oriented notions of propriety and property—then the child is removed. This is a significant enough problem that a child a day is taken from his or her mother’s arms in Manitoba hospitals. This unsettling reality is even more disturbing when we consider that it is supported by the same system using forced sterilization—without their knowledge and consent—of Indigenous women to ensure the colonial project endures. The well-documented historical cases are now supported by more recent allegations which have surfaced in the last year and which inform recent court cases.

Although a cursory reading of the nearly voiceless person who modified the sign merely shows them to be indifferent about the safety of children, a more careful review of the local history, the implications of different aspects of the sign, and whose children are being reported and then lost if the no-regret warning is heeded, brings the graffiti writer’s possible motivations to life.

Whoever stood in the snow in minus temperatures felt strongly enough about the issue to risk being seen writing on a sign posted by a police representative. They were firm enough in their determination that the sign presents at least one mistruth that they reached above their head to make a counter declaration. This is not idle graffiti. This is a possibly vain attempt to correct a problem which is nearly ubiquitous in the culture and which hides its history behind an appeal to help a child. The sign even makes its seemingly innocuous request with the word please, but people of Indigenous descent in Canada hear a different request and have historical reasons to fear what they may regret.

Posted in Activism, Culture, History, Winnipeg | Tagged , , | Comments Off on A Response to the Signs

The High Today is Minus 8

The weather in Winnipeg is normally quite stable. We typically have four days of sun followed by four days of cloud. Of course, locally, Winnipeggers respond to their climatic conditions like any others. They complain that the day is hot, cold, or too temperate, even while they make claims about the wild swings of temperature or mood. “If you don’t like the weather,” they say, “wait fifteen minutes.”

This is not really true, and they have borrowed the phrase and the sentiment from places in Canada where the weather is truly constantly shifting, such as the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, or coastal British Columbia. Because there are few influences on the weather in Winnipeg, and on southern Manitoba in general, the people here are rarely surprised by freak storms, by forecasting that is wildly at variance to what they see outside, or—even given a trend toward warmer winters in the last twenty years—temperature shifts.

CBC radio has grown wise to the tendency of forecasting that looks ahead too much to be inaccurate, so they now limit their foretelling to one to two days. This morning I heard a forecast that should have been exactly like all the others from a winter morning, some small amount of snow, minus figures, and the continuation of that into the future. As usual, the anchor-person announced the current temperature as minus six degrees and followed that with the day’s high temperature: minus eight.

This stood out, and for the first time I wondered what they actually meant by peak temperature. I had always presumed that it referred to the highest temperature during the day, much like peak meters on a stereo will show the highest levels the song rises to. I now wonder if they are using peak instead to refer to a particular time of the day. Perhaps they take the time normally associated with higher temperatures, such as noon, and then call that the peak and whatever temperature they guess it will be at that time is the day’s peak temperature.

To do this, they have to modify our generally accepted notion of peak and highest. I could be wrong, however, and they are instead referring to the peak of the day and giving the temperature then. Either way, it is much warmer in the morning than it will be later in the day, and the radio has told me that by claiming—if we take them at their words—that minus eight is warmer than minus six.

That is the other way we survive the Winnipeg winter. We tell ourselves that winter will end earlier than it will, we lie about how the cold doesn’t parch our bones even while we shiver next to a bus stop, and we wear shorts as soon as the temperature approaches zero. In Winnipeg we survive by telling lies about our terrible situation, not just about how our weather is unpredictable, or that the winter is more manageable than it is, that summer is too hot when in fact it is temperate, but we have begun to lie about what the words mean.

Caught in the desperate fact of our winter existence, we lie about which temperature is colder, and what the word peak might mean. While the rest of the world looks on in amazement while we throw boiling water into the air and it sublimes into vapour, we have also begun to tinker with the building blocks of communication itself.

Posted in Climate Change, Media, Winnipeg | Tagged , | Comments Off on The High Today is Minus 8